Authorities agree that the core theme of Jesus' teachings is "the Kingdom of God". The expression is used in sixty one separate sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, not counting parallels. Furthermore, John makes repeated reference to the closely related concept of 'eternal life'. The question of what Jesus actually meant by the phrase however, has led to a great deal of debate over the years. From the material we have, the nature of the Kingdom is very difficult to determine and still perplexes biblical scholars today. In this essay we shall look at some of the arguments and evidence about what Jesus meant by the phrase, 'the Kingdom of God.' To give some historical context, there were many Jewish factions awaiting a long promised kingdom at the time of Jesus' ministry. These included the aristocratic Sadducees who did not believe in an afterlife and had no messianic expectations. There were the Pharisees who regarded themselves as ritually clean and superior. They did believe in an afterlife but also that the Messiah would come and restore the glories of David's kingdom here on earth and drive the gentiles from the Promised Land. Then there were the Zealots who sought to incite the Jewsto rebel against theRoman Empire and establish the kingdom on earth.
Wright (2014) explains that this wide range of beliefs serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, "which is exactly why audiences struggled to understand him."(2014, para 7). One reason for this, Stein suggests, is that neither Jesus nor the Evangelists ever defined exactly what they meant by the expression. They simply assumed that their hearers would understand. Therefore we must consider that, especially if Jesus believed the Kingdom of God was imminent, the phrase would have been used as the Jews understood it. Stein writes that Jesus was, and must have thought to a great extent like a first-century Jew and furthermore, he made no radical attempt to correct the thinking by his contemporaries.
For the Jews to whom Jesus was preaching, the term 'Kingdom of God' was synonymous with the kingdom of David, i. e. a real territorial kingdom ruled over in a political sense. In scripture Israel is referred to as "the Lord's kingdom" (1 Chronicles 28:5). The rule of David and then Soloman were prosperous and peaceful times for the Jews but circa BC 931 the Kingdom divided and the Jews fortunes declined down the centuries. In 2 Samuel (7:1-17) it was declared that David would have descendants and his kingdom would last forever. In Jeremiah (23:1-6) we read that God would choose as King a righteous descendant of David. It is natural then that the Jews, under gentile rule, would yearn for such a descendant to restore these happy times. This descendant would be the Messiah ruling a bureaucratic worldly Kingdom.
What then did the Jews expect the kingdom to be like? It was prophesied (Isaiah 61:1) that a chosen one would be sent to preach g...